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  • Church investigators grill Lyons

    By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY, Times Staff Writers
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 1997


    SALT LAKE CITY -- At a desolate Comfort Inn far from this city's downtown, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons faced three hours of sometimes sharp questioning Saturday by a special investigative commission of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

    Fighting to retain his position as president of the nation's largest black religious organization, Lyons was ushered into a small conference room at 9:30 a.m. by two members of the commission. Their chairman had prepared a list of more than 100 detailed questions based on news accounts about Lyons' controversial financial dealings and his relationships with other women.

    Lyons appeared somber and focused in his crisp, dark blue suit. Asked whether he intended to answer all questions put to him by the commission, Lyons simply sighed and smiled before being hustled into the meeting room, where the shades were drawn tight against a bright blue sky and distant mountains.

    Lyons faces criminal investigations by both state and federal prosecutors in Florida. But he went before the commission without an attorney.

    The commission was formed at Lyons' request this month with 18 convention members from across the country, including both clergy and lay people. Only about half the members were present Saturday, and their mood was tense. The sound of argument spilled from the room at times. Some spoke of beginning a period of fasting and prayer as the convention faces the most serious crisis in its 117-year history. Others threatened to call police to have a Times reporter and photographer kicked out of the hotel, located on barren scrub-land 14 miles west of downtown.

    At 12:30 p.m., Lyons was escorted from the conference room back to his hotel room. Reached there by telephone, Lyons politely declined to comment on the meeting. "They got me on such a heavy gag I just can't talk," he said.

    As Lyons remained secluded in his room, the commission continued to meet for another 90 minutes. The chairman of the commission, the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles, said later that the members were "privileged to talk directly to Dr. Lyons," but that their investigation is not complete. He said the commission has asked Lyons and others to provide additional documents.

    He would not describe those documents, nor would he discuss the scope and progress of the commission's work, which could well determine whether Lyons continues to hold the office he relentlessly pursued for most of his adult life.

    Asked whether the commission's investigation would be complete before the convention's annual meeting -- which starts eight days from now in Denver -- Hill replied: "We have no idea. We are going to work every day this week as hard as we can. We'll do the best we can."

    Asked whether Lyons refused to answer any of their questions, Hill said: "No refusal. No hostility."

    Even so, Saturday's session was a marked contrast to an emergency meeting of the convention's board of directors called by Lyons last month, soon after his wife was arrested and charged with setting fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owns with Bernice Edwards, the convicted embezzler whom Lyons hired as the convention's director of corporate public relations. After that meeting, the board gave Lyons a unanimous vote of confidence. Convention officers asserted that they saw no reason to question Lyons further.

    This time, there were few public words of support, just grim, tight-lipped convention leaders shuttling in and out of the meeting room.

    Do the commission members have confidence in Lyons after Saturday's session? "I think," Hill replied carefully, "that Dr. Lyons enjoys the confidence of all the members of the National Baptist Convention, and he's mature enough to know that because of your reporting there are questions that need to be answered."

    The commission includes Lyons allies, such as two senior convention officials, Jerry Gash and Cynthia Ray, who owe their positions to his patronage. It also includes critics, such as the Rev. Kenneth T. Whallum of Tennessee, who attended Saturday.

    Others are harder to judge. Hill, the chairman, is a close friend of the Rev. C.A.W. Clark, an influential convention leader from Texas who has called on Lyons to resign. He also worked hard Saturday to protect Lyons from news cameras and reporters.

    It was Hill who compiled a lengthy list of questions for Lyons. That list ranged widely over subjects first reported in the Times. The list included questions about:

    The Baptist Builder Fund, a convention bank account from which Lyons withdrew more than $100,000 to buy the Tierra Verde house, jewelry and club memberships. The fund did not appear in the convention's most recent audit and annual report.

    His hiring of Bernice Edwards, what he knew about her criminal past, whether the convention helped pay $32,000 she owed in restitution, and what compensation she has received from the convention.

    His hiring of Brenda Harris, her compensation as the convention's meeting planner, and whether convention funds were used to help her buy a $300,000 home in Nashville.

    His purchase of the Tierra Verde house, expensive jewelry, a Lake Tahoe time share and a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz with Bernice Edwards. Other questions concerned their planned purchase of a $925,000 estate in Charlotte, N.C.

    It was unclear Saturday how many of these questions were put to Lyons, or how he responded to them. He has, however, responded to many of these questions in two recent interviews he gave to local newspapers that circulate mostly in Tampa Bay's African-American communities.

    But an examination of those interviews in the Florida Sentinel Bulletin and the Weekly Challenger reveals discrepancies between Lyons' comments and public records, contradictions with his own earlier statements, and a pattern of not knowing or not recalling events.

    Lyons told the newspapers that convention money was not used on luxury items. It was Edwards' money, he said in the interviews, that paid for the waterfront house, the Mercedes, the time share.

    Edwards had lots of money, but a poor credit history, Lyons told the newspapers. He said she was searching for ways to invest her cash in "tax shelters," he said. Lyons, meanwhile, had little money, but good credit, he said. So he agreed to help Edwards out -- as a family friend and business associate.

    Lyons helped Edwards, he said, by agreeing to "hold for her" money in some convention accounts, including the Baptist Builder Fund, which he described as his discretionary fund.

    If all the known purchases that link Lyons and Edwards were paid for by Edwards, Edwards would have had to come up with at least $370,000 in cash in just the 17-month period between October 1995 and March 1997, records show. That includes: $261,000 for the house down payment, $74,500 for the car down payment, $36,000 for a 5-carat diamond ring and $2,000 for a down payment on the Tahoe time share.

    It is unclear how Edwards, who has filed for bankruptcy four times in the past five years, owed thousands of dollars in unpaid bills in Milwaukee and has a history of bouncing checks, would have such large sums of money in need of sheltering from taxes.

    Lyons has suggested that Edwards' wealth stemmed from the death of her husband in 1996. It is unclear whether Edwards was actually married to Jesse Douglas Jones, but Jones has no will filed in Milwaukee probate court and his brother has said his family is not a source of money for Edwards.

    Asked late Friday what Edwards' source of money is, Lyons declined to comment. "Please don't make me answer that question tonight," he said.

    Was it her salary with the convention?

    Lyons told the Challenger Edwards received no salary but was "paid on both percentage and commission basis." He did not elaborate about what commissions or percentages a public relations director would be entitled to.

    Lyons also has not been asked why he chose to "hold" Edwards' money in a convention account, instead of a personal account. He and Edwards shared a joint checking account at Mercantile Bank.

    In the newspaper interviews, Lyons offered an explanation of the Mercedes: Edwards wanted Lyons to upgrade his car and picked it out for him. She bought it as a gift for him, paying the $74,500 down payment with her own money, then getting a loan for the remainder. She put it in the name of Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist, and herself because of her credit problems, he said.

    "I was not involved in that," he told the Challenger. "If I was a part of it, she wouldn't have needed the church involvement. She could have used my name."

    But sales documents for the car show Lyons was involved. Lyons' signature is listed on two state documents that name Lyons' church and Edwards as owners. One of those, the application for certificate of title, was dated by a notary on the day the car was purchased, March 21 of this year.

    And, if Edwards made the down payment, it is not clear why a receipt for at least one of the down payment checks -- one for $36,000 -- was made out to the National Baptist Convention and Henry Lyons.

    The Tierra Verde house, Lyons told the newspapers, also was Edwards' idea. She needed "some tax shelters," and found the house she wanted, Lyons said. He agreed "to go on the credit" to help her.

    That explanation, however, contradicts the one Lyons gave in his only public news conference, one he gave a few days after his wife was accused of setting fire to the house in July.

    He said the property was "a guest house for developing corporate relationships and receiving national and international visitors in a private setting." Lyons' wife called it a "national guest house" for the convention.

    In the recent newspaper interviews, Lyons said he did not know how his marital status came to be misrepresented on the mortgage for the house. "A married man," was scratched out; "A single man" added.

    "I never initialed that (change)," Lyons told the Sentinel Bulletin. "Every change that was made had my initials on it except that one."

    But a review of the recorded mortgage shows no initials. Only one other entry -- a date -- is changed in the document. No initials are beside it either.

    In addition, a second document also listed Lyons as "unmarried." He was not asked to explain the reference in that document, a quit-claim deed in which Lyons granted co-ownership of the house to Edwards.

    The Lake Tahoe time share, Lyons said in the newspaper interviews, also was Edwards' idea. Again, he said, Edwards was looking for "tax shelters and looked into the time share aspect."

    But a St. Petersburg accountant said time shares generally do not create tax shelters. "That's not a tax shelter at all," said Wayne "Skipp" Fraser. "I don't see that there is anything or any way you could create a tax shelter through a time share. All you do is finance a week's worth of vacation."

    To the two newspapers, Lyons gave differing explanations of why he was with Edwards in Tahoe. He told the Weekly Challenger the pair was there to "to consummate a business deal," but that he could not remember exactly with whom they met. He told the Sentinel Bulletin: "We were in the area for a conference."

    The purchase deed, which lists both Edwards' and Lyons' names, was entered into on Oct. 27, 1995, Edwards' birthday. A Milwaukee travel agent recalled Edwards planning a romantic getaway for the two, the Milwaukee Journal has reported.

    In the newspaper interviews, Lyons often said he did not know or recall the answers to key issues.

    He said he knew little about the plans to buy a house in Charlotte. "I don't know anything about it," he said.

    But his signature is on the sales contract. In addition, a cashier's check used as earnest money for that house listed Lyons and Edwards as the remitters.

    He said he did not know about a lease that was used to secure the mortgage on the Tierra Verde house. That lease, which obliged the National Baptist Convention to pay Lyons $4,000 a month for a year, included signatures purportedly from two convention leaders. In sworn affidavits, both leaders have denied signing the lease.

    "Another thing I don't know (about) is the lease," Lyons said. "How it got signed. I don't remember a thing about how it carried the names of Dr. (Roscoe D.) Cooper and the chairman of the board."

    And Lyons' explanation of another document -- his marriage certificate that lists no prior marriages -- showed another gap. His two brief, earlier marriages, Lyons told the Sentinel Bulletin, he "just forgot."


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